— Think AgainTurn Away (@ThinkAgain_DOS) December 11, 2014
For years, a Twitter account bearing the name @ShamiWitness had been one of the most vocal online voices on the war in Syria. The person behind the account — which had 20,000 followers, including analysts in the Middle East and farther afield — appeared to have a vast knowledge of the conflict and had a surprisingly polite tone.
At some point, however, it became clear that Shami Witness wasn't just an observer of the war. By the start of 2014, he had become a big supporter of the Islamic State: On Twitter, he would defend the Sunni militant group from detractors and offer support to people thinking of traveling to join its fight. As the Islamic State beheaded journalists and wrought terror on Iraq and Syria, many people who interacted with him online grew increasingly uncomfortable.
On Thursday evening, Britain's Channel 4 News revealed that it had discovered the identity of Shami Witness. They reported that he was an executive named Mehdi living in Bangalore, with a Facebook page full of pictures of "pizza dinners with friends and Hawaiian parties at work."
Despite his support for the Islamic State, Mehdi had not gone to fight with them. "If I had a chance to leave everything and join [the Islamic State] I might have," Mehdi told Channel 4, explaining that his "family needs me here." Channel 4, citing his concerns for his safety, did not reveal his full identity, and the Shami Witness Twitter account was deleted soon after.
Among those following the Syrian war and the jihadist movement online, this 'semi-doxxing' of Shami Witness produced both shock and schadenfreude. Some mocked the mundanely normal life the Islamic State supporter seemed to lead, while others suggested that Shami Witness had always been taken too seriously by his international audience.
Shami Witness cheered when people were beheaded - but when outed by the news, he begged for privacy claiming his life would be endangered.
— Shiraz Maher (@ShirazMaher) December 11, 2014
So many counter-terrorism experts considered Shami Witness to be an authority on Syria. Too bad he was just some loser in India...
— James Miller (@MillerMENA) December 11, 2014
If Shami Witness had emigrated to Raqqa from Banglore he would now be cleaning all the toilets in the city. Subhana Allah. #Baqia
— BSyria (@BSyria) December 11, 2014
In a war that has proved exceptionally difficult for the international media to cover, the saga of Shami Witness may well reveal the limitations of following the conflict online.
"Shami Witness was an example of a certain kind of person on social media, someone who repeats what they see from other sources as his own comments on the situation at hand, often information shared by pro-IS accounts in Arabic, which gives a false sense of his knowledge about the situation," Eliot Higgins, a British blogger who has tracked the war under the name Moses Brown, explained in an e-mail to WorldViews.
"These kinds of individuals are harder to identify for the casual user on social media, so they tend to gain followers which lends them more credibility," Higgins added. "He demonstrates that judging the credibility of a source isn't always straight forward, and why with social media it's important to use multiple sources before relying too much on one claim being credible or not."
While most of Shami Witness's extremist life appeared to be lived out online, there may well be serious problems for him now in real life. Despite Channel 4's attempt to conceal his identity, revelations about his purported full name are now spreading online. It seems likely that Indian authorities and many others will be very interested in that. In a conflict where much of the battle for hearts and minds has been fought online, perhaps that is appropriate. And it is worth noting that after Channel 4's story went live, a number of other extremist Twitter accounts deleted themselves.